Thursday, June 29, 2006

Making eyes at each other

A few years ago, I was at a restaurant with a friend, and we were getting routinely ignored by the waitstaff. So I proceeded to stare intently at the back of the waiter's neck. He came over in a jiffy.

My friend, of course, wanted to know how I did that. The answer, in all likelihood, is that it was a probability bias -- a sort of variation on the gambler's fallacy, in which the guy was statistically likely to attend to us within a certain time frame, and my staring only produced the illusion of causality. That's not what I said, because people get a little grumpy when I'm constantly deflating their cognitive biases. But the explanation I offered is also true: humans are uniquely capable of knowing when people are looking at them, because the whites of our eyes (the sclera) are so distinct from the pupils and irises. In other words, it's really easy to tell whether a human eye is looking directly at you or slightly askance. You can't tell this with, for instance, a cat eye, which is almost all iris (see image). Other primates' eyes work this way too, but our whites are whiter and our brights are brighter. In short, humans can signal more with simple eye redirection than can any other creature.

What do we signal? Well, submission, when the eyes are cast down. Where a dog might make an elaborate show of submission, we barely need to move the rest of our bodies. The eyes have it. We can also signal fear; seeing an eye with an unusually large proportion of white (i.e., an eye open wide in terror) triggers responses in the amygdala, passing on the "danger" signal. Even if the eye images are shown for subliminally brief periods, you end up with amygdala activation. This can indicate danger ahead, or that the person is anxious about something -- maybe worried about being caught in a lie. And we process these interpretations without even noticing it.

And, as it now turns out, a direct gaze -- just a different proportion and direction of pupils and whites -- can make people more honest... even if the eyes aren't real.
Melissa Bateson and colleagues at Newcastle University, UK, put up new price lists each week in their psychology department coffee room. Prices were unchanged, but each week there was a photocopied picture at the top of the list, measuring 15 by 3 centimetres, of either flowers or the eyes of real faces. The faces varied but the eyes always looked directly at the observer.

In weeks with eyes on the list, staff paid 2.76 times as much for their drinks as in weeks with flowers.
Of course everybody, even New Scientist, is jumping in with the Big Brother jokes, and you have to admit, this experiment implies that that iconic poster would have been pretty effective in assuring compliance among the masses. Likewise, perhaps, the eyes of Dr. T.J. Eckleburg. I see it, though, as a paean to our sclera, perhaps the most underrated part of the visible eye. We get colored contacts because we want our eyes to be more striking, or maybe because we want to look like vampires and cats. We worry -- well, some of us worry -- about finding eye makeup that will play up our eye color. We maintain a mythology of Carries and Clarks Kent, whose prom dates don't think they're beautiful (or whose populace doesn't think they're super) until the glasses come off and the irises are in view. But it's in the sclera that our powers of communication lie.

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